By Daniel Friedman
By most accounts, this past season was a success for the New York Islanders.
The Isles finally took that step forward we’d been waiting for and clinched a playoff berth, albeit in a shortened campaign. Furthermore, we saw several key cogs step up in the postseason, which I think was more important than the fact that the team was still playing hockey at that point.
It was incredibly reassuring to find out that John Tavares is a guy who will step up this time of year. All too often, we’ve seen franchise players falter in the postseason (See: Ovechkin, Alexander) and that’s a major issue if you’re building your team around a star.
Fortunately, that’s a problem the Islanders don’t appear to have.
The year was a success, no doubt, but there’s lots of room for improvement. And, for the Isles, it’s all about the next move — and I don’t mean the one to Brooklyn, though that will help, too.
Mark Streit, Brad Boyes and Evgeni Nabokov are the team’s three notable unrestricted free agents. And we’re now certain that one of them will hit the open market and be the best puck-moving defenseman in it.
In all likelihood, Nabokov will be back, as he should be. I understand that his performance (or lack thereof) in the playoffs was a major turnoff for a lot of fans, but it’s important to remember that, without Nabby, the Islanders would’ve been playing golf instead of six games against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Nabokov is a very capable goaltender and I honestly believe that he can help this team. I will admit that his workload needs to be reduced and the way to make that happen is by bringing in a reliable backup goaltender who can handle more starts. It would also allow Kevin Poulin to be “the guy” in Bridgeport, which is the best scenario in terms of his development.
Ray Emery, Dan Ellis and Al Montoya are probably the three available goaltenders who fit the job description. Jose Theodore and Mathieu Garon are non-options. Don’t ever delude yourself into thinking otherwise.
Of course it’s also entirely possible that a certain Montreal-born goalie could wind up back with the team that drafted him 16 years ago. TSN’s Bob McKenzie has asserted that, “under the right circumstances,” the Islanders and Vancouver Canucks could make a deal for Roberto Luongo. Those “right circumstances” are almost definitely the Canucks taking on Rick DiPietro and his behemoth of a contract.
Whether or not a Luongo trade is likely to happen isn’t something that’s particularly clear at the moment, but I wouldn’t rule it out just yet.
Nicklas Backstrom is also a free agent, as is Mike Smith, so there are other options out there, but I don’t expect Islanders GM Garth Snow to pursue either goaltender. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; one is at the tail end of his career, the other is very difficult to gauge.
As for Brad Boyes, I know I’m in the minority here but I’d bring him back in some capacity. I wouldn’t put him back on the first line, but I think there’s a spot for him on this team.
I never quite understood all the negativity from the fans about Boyes. He’d amassed 115 goals over the previous five years going in to 2013, then put up 35 points in 48 games with the Isles. Boyes was on pace for nearly 60 points in an 82-game season. Last I checked, that’s pretty darn solid.
Another thing I liked about Boyes is that, unlike his predecessor, one Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau, he never took a shift off and always hustled. He was always hungry for loose pucks along the boards and in the corners. Even when the puck’s not on your stick, you still have to be a hockey player and I felt that Boyes was able to embrace that in most situations.
In the event that Boyes isn’t brought back, the Islanders have the luxury of being able to promote from within. Ryan Strome, Nino Niederreiter and Brock Nelson could all see time with the big club next year, though some will probably see a lot more than others. We’ll see how things shake out.
Replacing Streit is not going to be easy. I understand that he’d become a defensive liability but the idea that he was a horrible player was one of the most ridiculous notions I’d ever heard.
The Islanders had a top-10 power play this season and I’m not sure they replicate that without Streit in the lineup. That said, Snow made the right move by backing off, simply because of the price tag.
Matt Donovan is a potential call-up and there’s a very good chance you’ll see him in an Islander uniform next season. I’d also like to see Thomas Hickey get more power play time because I think he’s ready for it. He moves the puck well and skates even better.
Hickey is a restricted free agent, as are Travis Hamonic and Josh Bailey, but I would be shocked if all three weren’t back with the Islanders in 2013-14.
I would say that it’s in the Isles’ best interests to bring in someone who’s steady in his own zone. One name that comes to mind almost immediately is Rob Scuderi of the Los Angeles Kings.
The fact that Scuderi’s from Long Island is obviously a bonus, but I’d sign him regardless of whether he was from Syosset or San Diego. He’s exactly what this team needs.
If Snow can’t pick up Scuderi, then Andrew Ference would be a solid add as well. He hasn’t had a negative plus/minus since 2009-10 and has played a lot of minutes for a team that’s now going to its second Stanley Cup Finals in three years.
Ference doesn’t have much size and, like Scuderi, he won’t wow you with his skill. But he’s very steady and responsible defensively and the Isles could use more of that on their blue line.
Marty Reasoner, Keith Aucoin, Jesse Joensuu, Radek Martinek and, yes, Tim Thomas are the remaining notable unrestricted free agents on the current roster.
I’d like to see Aucoin and Joensuu brought back as depth players. Aucoin is one of those guys who does the little things, works hard and is a good teammate. Joensuu’s a nice option as well, but my sense is that he’ll want a fresh start somewhere else.
I would re-sign Martinek; I think he still does bring something to the table, even though he’s not an everyday player at this point in his career.
Reasoner can walk and Thomas was always going to.
Snow will probably want to add an impact winger and, likely through a trade. It’s hard to tell who Snow would be gunning for but there are plenty of avenues he can go and he now has plenty of assets he can move.
Progress is always nice but, for the New York Islanders to become a legitimate contender, there needs to be a desire for more.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter: @DFriedmanWFAN
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